Give BP some credit: its marketing campaign for the past decade has been so effective that you would think that those initials really did stand for “Beyond Petroleum.” But as the last two weeks have shown us, BP is now known as the Big Polluter, its reputation so stained that it may want to run back to its original name . . . British Petroleum.
For several years, the large energy companies have done such a fantastic job touting how progressive and eco-conscious they are that it has become easy to forget how polluting their industry is in the first place. ExxonMobil’s television commercials boast nimble engineers explaining how clean energy technologies will guide the future; last year, Chevron’s “Human Energy” advertisements showcased a concerned scientist with calming music in the background, while ignoring human rights violations in several companies in which it has conducted business; and Shell has been rebuked for misleading the Canadian public about the green credentials of a hugely polluting oil project in Alberta’s tar sands.
In fairness, some of these companies have relatively forward-thinking employment and labor practices; Chevron, for example, has scored 100% on the Human Rights Campaign’s employer index for several years, providing employees benefits that most of us would applaud and envy. BP ranks highly in this survey as well. Of course, its labor and human rights record around the globe is another story, earning it Multinational Monitor’s distinction of one of the 10 worst corporations as recently as 2005.
BP has spent up to US$125 million annually on its rebranding effort, and if the company keeps its word, it will spend much more than that sum cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico. So far BP has had a clumsy start: it intimidated desperate Gulf fisherman to accept a paltry sum of money to help clean the mess in return for indemnifying the company, before public outcry stopped it; it continues to deny responsibility for the explosion; after days of insisting it had the leak under control, asked the Department of Defense for help; and its bewildered-looking CEO said, upon taking the job three years ago, that he would “focus like a laser” on safety during his tenure. Branding strategists, I am sure, already creating proposals that if adopted, will make them a mint.
Despite the oft-said cliché, history does not repeat itself: 20 years ago the Prince William Sound fiasco in Alaska was a huge headache for Exxon, but a generation later, the company, having merged with Mobil, is the world’s energy giant. But history can be a guide. What BP has in its favor is that, like all energy companies, it is politically well-connected. Plus, it shares an insurmountable advantage with its peers: endless consumer and industry demand. BP may look like a villain for years with an image like a giant Mr. Burns; it offers a product about which consumers complain, but have shown through their habits and lifestyles, are not about ready to give up.